Fingertip trauma covers cuts, accumulation of blood (hematoma), bone breakage, or amputation in the fingertip.
The fingertips are specialized areas of the hand with highly developed sensory and manipulative functions. Large sensory and motor areas located in the brain regulate the precise and delicate functions of fingertips. The fingertip is the site where extensor and flexor tendons insert. Fingertip injuries are extremely common since the hands hold a wide array of objects. In 2001, the approximately 10% of all accidents in the United States referred for Emergency Room consults involve the hand. Hand injuries are frequently the result of job injuries and account for 11-14% of on-the-job injuries and 6% of compensation paid injuries. Injury to the nail bed occurs in approximately 15-24% of fingertip injuries.
Fingertip injuries can result in amputation or tissue loss. The injury is assessed whether the bone and underlying tissue are intact and the size of the wound area. The pulp is the area of skin opposite the fingernail and is usually very vulnerable to injury. Pulp injuries commonly occur in persons who use or are in close contact with fast moving mechanical devices. These injuries can crush, cut, and puncture. The fingertips can also be injured by common crushing accidents. This could cause the development of a subungal hematoma (an accumulation of blood under the nail). At the base of the distal phalanx (the first circular skin fold from the tip) injuries can occur that can fracture the underlying bone in the area. Quite commonly a hammer, closing a door, or sport accidents usually cause these injuries. These fractures can be simple, requiring little treatment or more complicated involving the joint. The accident may involve the point of insertion of a tendon. Usually this occurs when the terminal joint is being forced to flex while held straight. This motion typically occurs when tucking in sheets during bed making, a common cause of tendon injury. This injury causes a loss of extension (straightening the finger) ability.
Causes and symptoms
Accidental amputations will usually result in profuse bleeding and tissue loss. Injuries to the pulp can occur as from fast moving mechanical instruments, such as drills. These injuries may puncture the pulp. Injuries such as a subungal hematoma are caused by a crushing type injury. Fractures typically occur as the result of crushing injuries or tendon avulsion. These crushing injuries are frequently caused during sport injury and can be treated by simple interventions such as immobilization or more complex procedures if tendons are affected (the trauma is then treated as a tendon injury). Fractures can cause pain and, depending on the extent of swelling, there may be some restriction of movement. Tendon injuries can be caused when the terminal joint is exposed to force flexing motion (moving the finger toward the palm) while held straight.
The attending clinician should evaluate the injury in a careful and systematic manner. The appearance of the hand can provide valuable information concerning presence of fractures, vascular status, and tendon involvement. Bones and joints should be evaluated for motion and tenderness. Nerves should be examined for sensory (feeling sensations) and motor (movement) functioning. Amputations usually profusely bleed and there is tissue loss. The wound is treated based on loss of tissue, bone, and wound area. Injuries to the pulp can be obvious during inspection. Subungal hematoma usually present a purplish-black discoloration under the nail. This is due to a hematoma underneath the nail. Radiographs may be required to assess the alignment of fractures or detect foreign bodies. Patients usually suffer from pain since injuries to the fingertip bone are usually painful and movement may be partially restricted due to swelling of the affected area. Tendon injuries usually result in the loss of ability to straighten or bend the finger.
Amputation with bone and underlying tissue intact and a wound area 1 cm or less should be cleaned and treated with a dressing. With these types of wounds healthy tissue will usually grow and replace the injured area. Larger wounds may require surgical intervention. Puncture wounds should be cleaned and left open to heal. Patients typically receive antibiotics to prevent infection. A procedure called trephining treats subungal hematomas. This procedure is usually done with a straight cutting needle positioned over the nail. The clinician spins the needle with forefinger and thumb until a hole is made through the nail.
Patients who have extensive crush injuries or subungal hematomas involving laceration to skin folds or nail damage should have the nail removed to examine the underlying tissue (called the matrix). Patients who have a closed subungal hematoma with an intact nail and no other damage (no nail disruption or laceration) are treated conservatively. If the fracture is located two-thirds below the fingertip immobilization using a splint may be needed. Conservative treatment is recommended for crush injuries that fracture the terminal phalanx if a subungal hematoma is not present. Severe fractures near the fist circular skin crease may require surgical correction to prevent irregularity of the joint surface, which can cause difficulty with movement. Injury to a flexor tendon usually requires surgical repair. If this is not possible, the finger and wrist should be placed in a splint with specific positioning to prevent further damage.
Prognosis depends on the extent of traumatic damage to the affected area. Nail lacerations that are not treated may cause nail deformities. When amputation is accompanied with loss of two-thirds of the nail, half of the fingers develop beaking, or a curved nail. Aftercare and follow up are important components of treatment. The patient is advised to keep the hand elevated, check with a clinician two days after treatment, and to splint fractures for two weeks in the extended position. Usually a nail takes about 100 days to fully grow. Healing for an amputation takes about 21 to 27 days. This markedly decreases in elderly patients, primarily due to a compromised circulation normally part of advancing age.
Townshend, Courtney M., et al. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 16th ed. W. B. Saunders Company, 2001.
Distal — Movement away from the origin.
Flex — To bend.
Laceration — A cut in the skin
Phalanx — A bone of the fingers or toes.
Tendon — A structure that connects a skeletal muscle to bone.